William Shakespeare's Love's Labour's Lost is about a king and three of his friends who withdraw from the world for a period of three years. During this time the four men vow to undertake serious study and under no condition get involved in frivolous affairs with women. I know this much because I looked up the play on Amazon. The title came to mind as I racked my brain for a suitable heading for this essay. I have never read the comedic play.
I bring up love's labors because this past Labor Day a friend asked me if I had ever been in love myself. The occasion was fitting, since romance is a lot of labor, as in work. At least it becomes work when love morphs into commitment and the kiddies come round, or so I've heard tell. Or maybe Peggy posed the question to me because we were at the annual Malibu Fair, where surrounded by carnival rides that made me queasy just watching them go up and down and round and round, and amidst so many eager thrill-seekers, the topic of romance seemed so apropos. Because falling in love really is a lot like a roller coaster ride, I am not the first to point out. There is usually a lengthy wait (in line for a ride, between partners for the lover), and an electrifying if all-too-brief heart pumping, stomach churning, butterfly inducing, dizzying foray through . . . what? Space, for the rider and over the skin, first of the fingers, then of the lips, for the lover. You go so high, whether figuratively or not, and plunge so low and before you know it, time is up, the ride is over. And you can't wait to do it again. Or like the kids I saw exit the gravity wheel, you throw up beef and beans all over your shoes. Because the fair was also a chili cook-off. I had the vegan option and didn't go on a ride, so my tummy didn't get upset. Would that it were the same for my amorous adventures, which have at times been somewhat messy.
My immediate response to Peggy's query was, "No, I have never been in love. Because love is forever and I am alone." But truly I have felt what it means to fall in love. For sure I've felt bedazzled by a girl. I thought Christina and I would get married, and we were only 13. I've been kept up at night pining for a girl. Neysa made my heart go pitter patter. And even in my forties I have cried when a sweetheart and I have broken up. And we always break up. Because falling in love is easy, staying in love not so much, I am not the first to point out.
The feeling of falling in love is not different from excitement, anticipation, longing. It's in that same league. But the object of these unsettling emotions is not always a person. You can experience excitement, anticipation, longing for, say, great food, a good movie, an evening with friends. Hell, even a bowel movement produces exquisite pleasure, if you're constipated enough. I have got that excited feeling in that afternoon lull that happens in office job-type work in anticipation for 5 o'clock cocktail hour. Or for an evening cigar. Or that new novel I wanted to read, or maybe write. Endurance athletes will recognize that those jitters which accost one in love are also those that rattle a runner before a race. Indeed running a race feels a lot like being in love. The anticipation you feel at the start line. The breathless excitement that attends your every step, whether for 30 minutes or 3 hours, until you reach the end. And then the feeling of delicious exhaustion after it's done. Which is really not that different from heartache.
The truth is that love is nature's way of ensuring that the species survives. Again I am not the first to make this observation. And once the lovers' child is conceived, often before it is born, or at least by the time it reaches adulthood, the exhilaration of true love morphs into something, er, mellower. You are lucky if the new phase brings harmonious cohabitation. For some it is repressed irritation, if not downright antagonism. And then the end brings relief.
I have yet to meet an older couple, or any couple for that matter who have been together for any appreciable length of time (my limit is about a year, after which things cool real quick) who are still as giddy for each other as they were when they first met eyes and locked lips. Alas, that world of firsts fades so very fast! I've heard of elderly folks who are still "very much in love," but I have yet to witness it or experience it myself. And not just because I'm not old. Most couples I know get divorced, and if they don't seem to barely stand each other any more. The few couples I know who are still somewhat harmoniously entwined into their 70s - and I know two such couples - never had kids of their own. Because kids can be huge stressors. Just ask my dad, who blames all his gray hair on us. Hey at least he still has his hair.
I sometimes wonder if lasting love is not just co-dependence masquerading as such. But maybe I'm just jaded. My friend Steve recently told me that he and his wife of three months are most likely pregnant. I congratulated him. After a lover's spat they kissed and made up and his wife told him, "This is not about us, honey. We are together for the kid." I found this to be very wise of her. If more couples knew that the excitement they experienced when they first met was nature's way of assuring a bond formed that was strong enough to last through the rearing of the product of their union (their kiddos), I reckon more couples would stay together, and the world would be a brighter place.
In those Victorian novels I used to like to read in my twenties, whenever the protagonist looked disheveled or distraught, other characters would remark something to the effect of, "What ails you, my lad (or lass)? Perchance are you in love?" Because falling in love is unsettling. Wanting someone suddenly upsets one's equilibrium, creates a lack which only another can fulfill. It is no easy task to rely on another and to relinquish control, especially for the rugged individualists out there, of whom I am sometimes one.
This is not to say I don't still get excited when I meet someone new. So much potential. Variety and novelty are after all such huge turn-ons. But this doesn't mean the person is the one you should shack up with any more than you should shack up with that gravity ride that sent thrills up and down your spine and made you lose your shit. It is almost heart-breaking to say it, but that loving feeling is felt merely in the presence of someone new, anyone new, anyone who is appealing enough to spend the night with over yet another evening alone. But then you get to know each other. Reality sets in. Faults and flaws arise, many of them glaring, some of them insurmountable. And you are rudely brought back down to earth, hopefully the wiser. So you opt for alone, which isn't all that bad. Because that Shakespeare on your shelf is not going to read itself.
Speaking of which, in the play that inspired this essay's title, the four bachelors are unsettled at the unexpected arrival of the Princess of France and her ladies. The men fall in love with the dames, as is men's wont, abandoning their staunch oaths and determining to win their fair hands. Which they probably do. And I really hope the four couples stay in love. To find out I suppose I'll have to get to reading, which I can do because unlike our bachelors, I have no woman to entertain. But if I did, I'd want a friend first and foremost. Since friendship is forever, and passion fades - of course I am not first to say.